La Plaza launched into action in 2018, just one year after Sonoma County was hit by catastrophic fires and heading into some of our most challenging years with more fires, historic floods, and a years-long pandemic. Yet the nonprofit, a project grown from a leadership program through On The Move, and seeded with financial support from Community Foundation Sonoma County, has managed to support thousands of people in the county’s Latinx population.

“We had three years funding to be able to bring in emerging leaders from different sectors in Sonoma County, to really be able to address one of the bigger issues that we saw happening: The underlying issue of Latinx people in Sonoma County not accessing mental health services,” says La Plaza’s executive director Javi Cabrera-Rosales.

Initially, Cabrera-Rosales says the cohort wasn’t quite certain what they’d do; they just knew that they needed to “get some really awesome people in a room and start working with each other to discover and develop it.” The emerging leaders that gathered came from different sectors, and the majority were bilingual and bicultural.

“We started to develop our foundations of trust. Who are you? Who am I? How do we actually do this work together? And if I don’t know you and you don’t know me,” says Cabrera-Rosales, “we can’t really do good work with each other.”

The premise of the On The Verge cohort was to help these emerging leaders to develop personal, interpersonal, and professional skill sets. The group knew that if they were going to address mental health, they needed to talk about how that impacts culture and community. Members discussed their own personal—and sometimes traumatic—experiences with mental health and healing with each other and examined the ways healing really occurred for them.

“It was gardening, it was music, it was poetry. It was storytelling, it was getting together with family and friends. It was talking with family and friends,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “And that was La Plaza’s creation; we’re not going to recreate a wheel of things that are not functioning.”

They decided to focus on creating a space where they could do the things they already knew contribute to healing: music, art, gardening, and herbal remedies, many of which are traditional practices from the members’ different cultures. While much of outreach around mental health focuses on accessing services, La Plaza honed in on the personal and cultural aspects of building a program centering healing as a mission.

In 2018 La Plaza secured a space at the site of the Cesar Chavez Language Academy. La Plaza provided other groups access to the space free of charge and provided support for various events and meetings, while providing logistical support like chairs, snacks, and even sage, says Cabrera-Rosales. La Plaza then transitioned to Lincoln elementary school about a year after, and they offered about 25 hours of programming per month for roughly a year before the pandemic hit.

“That was everything from mind and body medicine, all in Spanish, and parents support groups for their kids that live on the autism spectrum,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “We had a Latina group here in Santa Rosa, also occupying our space, conferences for undocumented folks for knowing their rights, legal support, and legal aid. We were doing consistently art about two to three times a week, workshops for both in all intergenerational, we were able to provide childcare or child activities, working in the garden.”

And then the pandemic brought it all to an abrupt halt.

Cabrera-Rosales says they initially tried to offer programming virtually for the first two months, using trial and error and various outreach methods to help folks get engaged. None of it seemed to work. People didn’t feel comfortable with the technology, or they were just otherwise overburdened with the stress of suddenly being out of work, schooling their children from home, and more.

Instead, La Plaza staff focused on one-on-one interactions, making phone calls to continue developing relationships with partner organizations and individuals who had utilized their various programs. Cabrera-Rosales says they had contact with roughly 50 individuals on an ongoing basis, helping people navigate support resources to get through the initial few months of the pandemic, during a time when no one really had a sense of how long isolation would last.

By May, news spread that the numbers of those impacted the hardest by Covid were drastically different for Sonoma County’s Latinx Spanish-speaking population compared to those in the dominant culture and the dominant language.

“It wasn’t more of an opportunity. It was more of a duty,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “There was a calling for somebody or some organization or some entities to come to do this work where there was no blueprint.”

La Plaza soon landed a three-month contract for fall 2020—around the same time the Glass and Walbridge Fires hit—and was tasked with getting a million dollars of pandemic relief funding into the community. They formed the CURA Project, and coordinated with local service agencies around the county to distribute emergency financial assistance and began an outreach and community engagement campaign. When the contract was up, they received an additional contract for six months.

A group of people smile while wearing purple shirts that read CURA project.

Centering people and community in disaster recovery

The unequal rates of covid transmission in our county showed that disasters, from fires to health, impact communities differently. Disaster recovery can’t take a one-size fits all approach.

“We need to be able to hear and understand the depths of the stories that folks have lived through, and the repercussions of not being supported during a disaster,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “So that we could be really clear in building out the real process that should be happening while trying to dismantle the one that has never worked—and that will never work—for our people.”

Cabrera-Rosales acknowledges this is an ambitious undertaking and La Plaza plans to bring someone onto their team that works specifically on disaster preparedness. The approach will go beyond traditional case management and will assess services through a cultural lens, ensuring that evacuation and other services are inclusive and safe for all.

In the meantime, La Plaza continues focusing on its core mission of promoting and enhancing the health and well-being of the Latinx community through its wellness projects.

“What we want to do is figure out how we can build the platform and the foundation that people need for holistic wellness during times of disaster and recovery from disasters,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “That looks like everything from if they need legal aid, food access and food resources, housing access, and housing resources, individuals that are in relationships that are riddled with violence or individuals needing direct financial assistance.”

Cabrera-Rosales hopes that through collaboration, there can be guides in these complex systems who can also navigate people toward culturally appropriate healing modalities.

“I think that the importance of preparation work is huge and that the investment in that will be less of an impact financially when a disaster actually comes,” says Cabrera-Rosales. “If we don’t take the time to actually listen, understand and build intentionally and integrally with and alongside our community, this will never be a successful model. We want to make sure that’s happening all along the way.”

Story by Dani Burlison

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